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You’ve Been Conned.

Greetings friends.

In the history of high finance there’s no shortage of stories about stock frauds and rip-off schemes.  One of the biggest in recent years was the Bernie Madoff scandal. For months we heard tales of the victims he defrauded through his investment Ponzi scheme.

Bernie Madoff

 

We might think that most of Bernie’s victims were relatively unsophisticated investors, but surprisingly, among his marks was Morton Zuckerman, a billionaire New York attorney and real estate investor. Other victims include movie mogul Steven Spielberg and a slew of European banks.

If fat-cats like Mort, Steven and the Euro-bankers, who have access to all the relevant data, can end up getting screwed big-time, we have to wonder what kind of magic Bernie Madoff must have possessed to hoodwink them.

Morton Zuckerman

There are plenty of theories about how con men work their schemes on us, and one recent book, The Confidence Game,   Why We Fall for it…Every Time, by Maria Konnikova, chronicles the many studies that attempt to pinpoint the traits of both the con man and his victim.

In her introduction she recounts the story of Ferdinand Demara.  Eventually known to the world as The Great Impostor, his story was dramatized in a 1959 film by that title, starring Tony Curtis. Demara managed to con the U S Navy into believing he was a surgeon, and after he was unmasked, Konnikova writes,

Ferdinand “Fred” Demara

He would go on to impersonate an entire panoply of humanity, from prison warden to instructor for mentally retarded children to humble English teacher to civil engineer who was almost awarded a contract to build a large bridge in Mexico.

Demara was such a successful con that he nearly persuaded his biographer, Robert Chrichton, to let him oversee the birth of Chrichton’s daughter. It was Chrichton’s wife who said no to this, but four years later she was so trusting of Demara that she allowed him to babysit that daughter.

Now that’s a con artist!

The author lists the three attributes that seem to make up a successful con artist. These attributes have been given the title, “The Dark Triad.” The traits are psychopathy, nonchalance (lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism.

There is actual evidence in brain scans of these traits, but the problem is, a person can have all these brain symptoms, be actually psychopathic, and never become a con man or be a threat to others. As proof of that, the author notes a study conducted by a neurologist who found that his own brain scan revealed that he himself was a psychopath.

A disturbing fact revealed by the listed studies is that many Dark Triadists often gravitate to somewhat less sleazy professions than the con game, becoming lawyers, stock brokers, and, surprise… politicians.

The conclusion is that it’s a combination of factors, genetic and environmental, that will determine if someone becomes a con artist. It is nearly impossible to clearly determine an exact set of conditions that will predict future behavior.

The focus of the book then turns to studies hoping to reveal the personality traits of the typical “mark” or victim of a con scheme. This is where things get really murky. As the author notes, we must keep in mind that,

The confidence game is an exercise in soft skills. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give.  

There are several case histories in the book of con-game victims, but the wide variations in their personalities, and in their life  circumstances at the time they fall for the cons make it nearly impossible to pinpoint a specific set of traits that make up the ideal victim. There are certain weaknesses that expert con men can spot; they have an inborn talent for spotting the gullible. That tendency to gullibility, however, is something we all share, no matter how sophisticated we think we are. Bernie Madoff’s victims were educated and by no means financially desperate.

As the author points out, “Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong.”

Studies listed in the book imply that the more trusting we are, the happier we are. After all, if we spend our lives constantly on the lookout for “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men,” our lives would be pretty grim.

But this tendency to trust also makes us vulnerable. Our vulnerability to the con springs from our desperate need for something or someone to believe in.

This basic human proclivity has led to what is known as The Guru Culture. Bookstores are crammed with advice and self-help books and we are barraged with T V ads, telling us how we can be thinner, more attractive, wealthier and just all-around better. All this is based on the unconscious assumption that we are desperately lacking in something, and that we need someone who knows better to help us.

Doctor Oz, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and a host of other advisers produce endless streams of information in various formats. But… if these guys know all the answers, why is it necessary to keep buying so many of their books and programs? Surely the truths they impart can’t be all that complicated.

There is a saying in the literature of Zen Buddhism,

                 “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

As with many Zen sayings, this is not to be taken literally. It simply suggests that if we meet someone who appears to have all the answers, we should avoid them.

In his book by the same title, psychologist Sheldon Kopp states the longing we all seem to share.

Unwilling to tolerate life’s ambiguity, its unresolvability, its inevitability, we search for certainty, demanding that someone else provide it. Stubbornly, relentlessly, we seek the wise man, the wizard, the good parent, someone else who will show us the way.

Surely someone must know. It simply cannot be that life is just what it appears to be, that there are no hidden meanings, that this is it, just this and nothing more. It’s not fair, it’s not enough! We simply cannot bear to live life as it is, without reassurance, without being special, without even being offered some comforting explanations. Come on now! Come across!  You’ve got to give us something to make it all right.

And, sorrowfully, it seems that time and again our chosen wise ones turn out to be ordinary examples of human frailty, just as we ourselves are. This is a constant refrain in our society, as icon after icon is exposed as just another “Great and Powerful Oz.”

But history shows that despite the apparent weaknesses of our chosen wise ones, humans will go to great lengths to maintain the illusion that the wise one is above criticism.  The twentieth century was a long dreary drama of millions “following orders” and marching side by side into mass slaughter. We tend to put the blame on Dark Traidist leaders, and we dub them monsters. But we must keep in mind that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc., did not, as far as we know, murder anyone. All these guys ever did was…say stuff. It was their true believers, those who sought in them their salvation, who perpetrated the crimes. As Konnikova reminds us,

The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything. He makes us complicit in our own undoing. 

So, if we can become more aware of our dangerous proclivity to put our trust in fallible human beings and do as we are told, will that knowledge of our weakness keep us from being scammed, or following false prophets, or doing what The Great and Powerful Oz orders us to do?

No way!

Life is just too scary, and the truth is simply too awful. We’re human beings, and we gotta believe in something or someone. Otherwise, we’ll go crazy.

That’s all for now, my friends. Keep a firm grip on your wallets, and always remember that the only person in this cold cruel world that you can ever really trust is, of course… me.

Sources;

The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova, Penguin Random House, 2016

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him  Sheldon B. Kopp  Bantam Books, 1972

Trycycle: The Buddhist Review Clark Strand, March-April, 1999

Why Johnny Can’t Disobey, Liberty Magazine, July 1999

 

 

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200,000 Lunch Pails

Lunch Tiffin

Greetings friends,

If you asked a Silicon Valley techno-geek to devise a program that would organize the delivery of around 200,000 lunch pails, picked up from individual homes daily before 10 A M and delivered to the customers at work, then, hours later, picked up again and returned back to their homes before 6 P M, with a failure rate of less than one percent… well… we can only imagine the complicated algorithm this project would generate.

Adding to the difficulty, these lunches must traverse Mumbai, India, a city of nearly 12 million people, by bicycle, train, and sandaled foot, often delivered to the tenth or twelfth floor of an antiquated office building that has no elevator.

Another minor issue is that the train system in Mumbai is among the most dangerous in the world. Every day, 7.5 million people commute in incredibly cramped coaches that ride over broken down rails. In 2015, 3304 people were killed. Most train stations are equipped with morgues to handle the bodies.

Mumbai train.

This lunch delivery work has been done since 1890, without input from time-and-motion experts or computer geeks, by a group known as dabbawalas.  The Hindu name, roughly translated, means “One who carries a box.”

Dubbawala loaded with tiffins. Getting on a Mumbai train with this load could be…challenging

The service is necessary because Mumbai office workers leave home so early there is nobody awake to cook their meals, and they are so loaded with work stuff, and their ride to work is so treacherous, that they can’t carry another item.

Tiffins marked with delivery codes.

Eating out at lunch is too expensive for most, and they consider office cafeteria food to be of inferior quality. Many are vegetarians with strict dietary requirements. So the meal must be prepared at home, picked up by the dabbawalas, grouped together at various checkpoints around the city, and routed from there  to their destinations, some more that 30 miles away.

“The dabbawalas use a complex system of collection teams, sorting points, and delivery zones and a completely manual system of routing the right meal to the right destination.”

This task is carried out mostly by men who can’t read, so the entire process is done without a shingle sheet of paperwork. The lunch pails, known as tiffins, are color-coded to direct their delivery and return, all with a system that has been studied by business biggies in America and Europe who hope to learn from the system’s efficient simplicity.

The world’s biggest meals-on-wheels business.

The dabbawalas pay is around 8000 Rupees (roughly $131 per month). Their jobs are handed down over generations and require a six-month apprenticeship. Although the system has an official hierarchy, the dabbawalas work without supervision and consider themselves to be free men, relishing the fact that they work without bosses.

Though their work provides an essential service to Mumbai residents, the dabbawalas are guided by a deeply-held spiritual tradition.

“The Tiffin delivery system is not only supported by a complex logistics system. but also by a specific moral code. Their code is an expression of the interrelationship between a specific manifestation of the Hindu faith, which can be traced back to the Varkari Sampradaya Sect, and India’s unique cultural philosophy. The sect places food at the center of its philosophy, considering it to be a metaphor for life and its primary material impulses and aspirations.”


The dabbawalas believe that delivering food is much more that just a way of making a living. Their mantra is,

                                               “Food is God. Work is worship”

In an age whose primary gods are money and shallow fame, it’s gratifying to know there are people guided by such noble views.

Wouldn’t it be nice to look this happy on our way to work?

 

Sources;

3304 Deaths On Mumbai Locals. thehindu.com, Jan 27, 2016

Dabbawala: Ethics in Transition. Open Book Publications. openbook.org

In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver. NY Times, May29, 2007

Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s Lunchbox Carriers. Financial Times, June 31, 2015

 

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Three-Legged Love.

Greetings, friends,

The world of classical music has certainly known its share of neurotic geniuses, but few have ever reached the level of other-worldly genius and sheer neurotic goofiness as the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould

Recognized at an early age as a musical genius, Gould was gifted with an astonishing memory, allowing him to memorize a musical score after one or two readings. He had a perfect sense of pitch and an audial acuity that allowed him to differentiate between the slightest variations in tone.

But along with these gifts came character traits that were both endearing and frustrating to those he dealt with. He was annoyed by the stuffy formality and conservatism of the classical music world. In one of his debut concerts, he was instructed by an imperious conductor that all musicians in the orchestra must have their sheet music present during the performance. Gould knew the music four ways from Sunday, but to placate the conductor, Gould walked on stage carrying the musical score, dropped it on his chair, sat down on it, and ripped through the concerto as if he had written it himself.

The Pygmy Chair
The Pygmy Chair

And that chair he set the music on is a story in itself. Known as “The Pygmy Chair” it was given to Gould by his father when he was a boy, and Gould carried it with him around the world. He was so admired by his fellow musicians that he had to have the chair guarded when he went to the restroom during rehearsals, for fear they would snip off a bit of it as a souvenir. He used this chair to the end of his life, and for decades, long after the upholstery had worn away, it was held together with wire and spit. Gould loved it because it swayed and rocked as he did while playing, and it made such loud creaks and crackles it gave recording engineers fits trying to edit out the noise.

imagesBy the age of thirty Gould was not only a world-renowned genius, but one of the best loved performers on earth. His concerts were sold out months in advance. Women sent him letters pledging undying love. But Gould hated the concert scene. A raging hypochondriac who suffered from insomnia, he took numerous pills, including tranquilizers. His pillheadedness was well known. He once replied to a newspaper article about it. “The press claim that I travel with a suitcase full of medications. This is a gross exaggeration. It is merely a small briefcase.”

All great artists suffer frustrations, but it may be that Gould’s lifelong search for a suitable piano that could allow him to manifest his colossal gifts was his greatest burden (aside from his wacky personality, of course.)

Part of the problem is that a genius such as Gould hears music in his head that he is constantly trying to bring into the world of sound. But he is always hampered by the physical limitations of the mechanical device he uses to make that sound real. Gould had such delicate touch, such lightening-fast, “butterfly” fingers, and such a sublime technique that he doubted he would ever find a piano that could suit him.

As with all concert pianists, dozens of Steinway Grands were always at his disposal. Gould tried hundreds over the years, but like a man searching for the perfect woman, there was always frustration.

He had already resigned himself to the limitations of the Steinway, a piano built to create the resounding volume required to deliver the Romantic composer’s music to the concert audience. But Gould thought the Romantics were narcissistic and showy. He was a Bach man all his life, and had only one goal – to interpret as faithfully as he could the great Johann Sebastian’s intentions.

For those of us who haven’t dedicated our lives to music, it may be difficult to understand the intensity of the relationship between the musician and his instrument. A superb account of Gould’s frustrating search is chronicled in Katie Hafner’s book “A Romance on Three Legs.”

CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair
CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair

She does a brilliant job of elaborating the inherent problems of a concert Grand piano. Built of 12,000 parts, made of wood, wire, felt, cotton and iron, “these massive, seemingly robust, even indestructible instruments could be orchid-like in their fragility, prone to any assortment of ailments”

And the variations among the instruments themselves is immense. Two Steinway Grand’s, built in Astoria by the exact same technicians, one after the other, using the exact same techniques and materials, will be completely different in their personalities.

But Gould relentlessly  continued his search. Then one day in June of 1960, in the basement of Eaton’s department store in downtown Toronto, while wandering among the dozens of Steinways in the basement, he pushed back the keyboard cover of a dinged-up ebony grand, played a few notes, and instantly he knew…this was the one.

It was Steinway # CD318, a beat-up old warhorse of a piano. It had been  hammered on since 1945 by dozens of concert artists, and had been shoved aside, awaiting shipment back to the Steinway factory for rebuilding.

But CD 318 was in such bad shape that it would require the ministrations of an unusual piano technician to revive it, and such a man was Charles Verne Edquist, known to those in the piano world simply as “Verne”

Edquist’s road to prominence in his field was as rutted and rocky as Gould’s was fortunate. Born into implacable poverty in rural Saskatchewan, he had lost 90% of his vision in early childhood, and at the age of 11, having never been outside his village, he boarded a train that would carry him across Canada to a school for disabled children. Piano tuning was a common trade for the sight impaired, and Verne took to it immediately, spending decades working his way up to the top.

Tuning a piano is only one aspect of the repertoire of skills required by a competent technician. Verne had the ability to completely disassemble the piano, go over every part of it, and reassemble it. One of the most difficult skills is the “voicing” of a piano, which involves the kneading and sanding of the felt hammers that strike the strings. Verne was as gifted as Gould in his ability to distinguish tone and pitch, and he was also synesthetic, meaning that to him, sounds had a color component that were as real to him as the reds and blues and yellows that sighted people take for granted. But Verne – he saw them in his head.

Of Verne’s reaction to CD 318, Katie Hafner writes,

“…the first few chords he played on 318 got his attention. He was well accustomed to the different qualities of fine instruments, but in 318 the tone and the featherlight, fast-repeating action stood out. This was a piano with a soul.”

Though Verne Edquist and Glenn Gould were different in many ways, when it came to producing the music, they were brothers under the skin. Gould had long since given up performing in concerts and had dedicated himself to recording the works of the Baroque Canon. At each recording session, Verne was nearby listening intently, and when there was even the slightest slippage in CD 318, Gould would stop playing and nod to Verne, who often had heard the problem already. Verne descended on the old piano with his tools, and when the problem was solved, the recording continued.

This collaboration resulted in some of classical music’s greatest recordings, and no doubt would have continued until one of the men died. But it came to a tragic ending in September of 1971. The beloved CD 318 had been shipped to Cleveland for a rare Gould concert appearance, and on its way back to Toronto, the crate that contained it was violently dropped. To his day, what happened has remained a mystery. No one has come forward to own up to the tragedy.

Gould and Verne tried desperately to restore the piano, but no matter what they and the experts at Steinway attempted, the magic of CD 318 had been lost forever.

Gould refused to give up. He continued to urge on anyone who would attempt to restore the piano’s greatness, but nothing worked. His response to this loss mirrored his reaction to his failed relationship with the painter Cornelia Foss. They had a torrid love affair, and for years after she left him, Gould tried desperately to get her back, to revive the glory of their time together.

It often seems that those who strive hardest for perfection have the greatest difficulty dealing with the fact that nothing lasts.  In the world of classical music, Glenn Gould was a towering giant, but when it came to dealing with the vicissitudes of life, the guy was sadly inept.

Glenn died unexpectedly at the age of 50 in 1982, with a long list of musical projects planned. Had he lived, there’s no doubt that he would have further enriched his already great legacy. Though his premature death was a tragic loss, his many recordings, most notably those of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, are musical gifts that the world will cherish forever.

That’s all for now, friends. So long, and thanks for listening,

B.

Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould's statue in downtown Toronto
Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould’s statue in downtown Toronto

Sources;

Katie Hafner, A Romance On Three Legs, Bloomsbury, 2008

Kevin Banzana, Wondrous Strange; the Life and Art Of Glenn Gould, Oxford University Press, 1994,

Tim Page, The Glenn Gould Reader, Vintage, 1990

 

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The Once And Forever King

 

untitledGreetings, friends,

At Dodger Stadium out on L A, back in 1967, they held an exhibition game. Six of baseball’s reigning heavy-hitters lined up to go to the plate. History doesn’t record whether they were prepared for the humiliation they were about to endure, but it does record the outcome.

One by one, in consecutive innings, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew were each, ignominiously, struck out.  Later in the game, the great Pete Rose suffered the same fate…twice.

The pitcher who performed this amazing feat said afterwards, with a hint of understatement, “It was a mismatch.”

Though he was basically a modest man. this guy was never afraid to show off his skills. He went on the Johnny Carson show and persuaded Johnny to kneel down facing the audience with a cigar in his mouth. The pitcher paced off the distance, then hurled a pitch and knocked the cigar out of Johnny’s mouth. Now, that’s quite a stunt, and you gotta hand it to Johnny for having the guts to take part in it. But then, Johnny didn’t know that the pitcher was blindfolded.

If you’re trying to remember who this guy was and can’t, don’t feel bad. Though he remains relatively unknown, in 1972 Sports Illustrated named him “The most underrated athlete of his time.”

In 2000 the same magazine named his team as the United States’ eight-greatest team of the 20th century. And a 2002 ESPN.com list named him among the top 10 pitchers of all time, in a list that included Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

His name was Eddie Feigner (pronounced “FAY-nor”) and he was the greatest fast-pitch softball pitcher of all time.

Eddie Feigner
Eddie Feigner

 

In an era when big-league pitchers made 100k a year, Feigner made that much in a month.  In an athletic career that spanned six decades, he and his team, the King And His Court, barnstormed around the world, playing in all 50 States and 104 countries, performing before 20,800,00 fans in 4405 cities, sometimes playing three games in one day in three different stadiums. enabling Feigner to compile the following outrageous record:

Total Games Pitched In………………………….11.125

Total games won…………………………………….9,743

Games tied……………………………………………… 310

Total strikeouts……………………………………141,517

Total No-Hitters………………………………………930

Total Perfect Games…………………………………238

Total Shut-outs……………………………………..1.982

That’s quite a list, but apparently Eddie Feigner’s favorite statistic was,

Total Batters Stuck Out While Blindfolded………8.698

But Feigner didn’t just strike out batters pitching blindfolded. He did it behind his back, between his legs, and kneeling down. If he wanted to humble the hitter, he struck him out from second base, and if he really wanted to get fancy, he did it from center field.

One batter, quoted in The Orlando Sentinel, described what it was like to face Feigner. “I was waiting for a pitch, heard a noise, watched the catcher throw the ball back. It was incredible. There was no way to get the bat off my shoulder before the ball got there. I don’t know how anybody ever hit the guy.”

The previously mention baseball greats probably wondered the same thing, after they faced his repertoire of 103 mph fastballs, curves that broke 18 inches, interspersed with sliders and change-ups thrown at five different speeds.

pg2_g_feigner_inline_300

His record is all the more impressive considering that The King And His Court consisted of only four players. Feigner believed he could get by with just a catcher and first-baseman, but if he and his teammates came to bat and were all walked, they’d be screwed, so he added a shortstop.

Though he became one of history’s greatest athletes, Feigner’s life did not get off to a good start. Left as a newborn at the door of an orphanage in Walla Walla, Washington with a note pinned to his blanket that read. “This is a Protestant baby”, Feigner step-mother named him Myrtle Vernon King.

Mrs. King raised him as a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion that did not allow baseball playing, but had no admonition against softball, so Eddie went to work teaching himself how to pitch, and by age 16 was humiliating batters in men’s leagues, becoming so proficient that one league banned him from the mound.

He was a troublesome youth. He was expelled from school and drifted for years supporting himself at menial jobs till joining the Marine Corps. then had two nervous breakdowns, got married and divorced twice and twice attempted suicide, after which the Corps locked him in the X-Ward.

Feigner said. “The X-Ward was a place for wackos and I belonged. I was wacky and wanted to die.I was a pitiful screwed-up person with no home and no father and no real mother I knew about. I was also an uncouth, uneducated, arrogant, belligerent, no-good miserable excuse for a human being. I was bent on destroying myself. A psychiatrist told me I’d never straighten up until I found my mother. When I did, I completely changed my life.”

After a search that began in the Walla Walla library, Eddie located his birth mother in December of 1945, in a reunion that, if his account of it is accurate, was reminiscent of a 40’s Hollywood tearjerker  Her name was Naomi Feigner and she lived in the same town and had often hired Eddie to mow her lawn, never realizing that he was her son.

And so Myrtle Vernon King changed his name to Eddie Feigner, a name that would make athletic history.

Eddie Feigner pitched actively well into his sixties and died in 2007 at the age of 81, but long before that he voiced his opinion of his place in the world of sports. “I’m a pipsqueak.” he said, “because I’m caught in a nothing game. It’s like being a world champion nose blower.”

Though Eddie may have thought little of his relative place in athletic history, we can be sure he drew consolation from knowing that, though in every sport there are endless arguments about who was the greatest at what, in his chosen field of endeavor Eddie Feigner was, is now, and forever will be, indisputably…The King!

Keep swingin’ for the fences, friends,

Bruce

Sources:

The News Tribune, Believe it or not, there was a strikeout king before Felix,  John McGrath, August 4, 2014

The Wayback Machine. Fast Edie Feigner, August 19, 2004

The New York Times. Eddie Feigner, Hard-Throwing, Barnstorming Showman Of softball, Dies at 81. Feb 12, 2007

From An Orphan To a King, Eddie Feighner, Sheridan Books Inc, 2004

 

 

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